by Anita Zaror
Why are some people coming all the way to Thailand to buy gemstones? Because you may have dinner in London with your girlfriend on Friday; fly into Bangkok on Saturday morning; buy her a diamond ring in the afternoon, and pop the question during Sunday brunch. And including your flights – plus a delicious Thai lunch and a Thai massage – you will still pay at least 30 percent less in Thailand than in Europe for exactly the same precious stone (if bought from the right place).
There are hundreds of different gemstones in the world. Even though the classification between “precious” and “semiprecious” stones tends to be a grey area, both are called “gems” or “gemstones” when used in jewelry. Diamonds, rubies, emeralds, and sapphires are commonly regarded as precious stones, while all the rest are semiprecious – and it’s particularly on the former that you can get great value for in Thailand.
Once you land in Bangkok, there is no need to go too far to find gemstones that suit your budget – the Jewelery Trade Center (JTC) in the Central Business District is the place to go. Even though JTC is a popular spot among walk-in tourists, it is also well-known for supplying wholesalers such as jewelry manufacturers in Thailand and around the world, due to its competitive prices.
Located in Silom Road, this is Thailand’s most prominent marketplace for diamonds, gems, and jewelry trade in general. Home to more than 1,500 wholesalers and 300 retailers, it comprises business, commercial, and residential spaces in its 180,000 sqm.
The downside of JTC is that it’s so big that it is difficult to know where to start the search. But it is indeed a very tourist-friendly place; so much, that if you fill in a form at the reception counter on the Ground Floor you will get a shopping bag or your birthstone… for free! They also offer a complimentary personal shopper service to help make your shopping spree more enjoyable, and they supply everything from fine jewelry to designer creations, from silver to diamonds, and from heritage pieces to one-of-a-kind designs.
But leaving aside the ornaments around a gemstone shop-till-you-drop fever, back to what’s important: being Thailand famous for its “same same” (aka fake) goods, the first question that may arise to the avid gemstone shopper could be the following:
Am I Buying Original Gemstones or Not?
“Thais are known for their quality—they have experience in cutting, equipment, using loupe—and for their standard cutting and polishing without changing the quality during the process. China, India, and other countries are very unsystematic, sellers are all scattered and there are all types of people… whereas Bangkok is a systematic gemstone hub in the world, and the business is scattered within just two main buildings and a couple of sois. Every seller of diamond, gems, jewelry is located here, except for large factories,” explains the company’s co-owner Navneet Agarwal, a gemologist of Indian origin trained at the Gemological Institute of America in California (which is an authority when it comes to diamonds, colored stones, and pearls since 1931).
At present times, when technology can replicate precious or semiprecious stones in every color, being sure you’re buying an original could be tricky unless you’ve been trained to know the difference. Precious stones, particularly rubies and sapphires, are Agarwal’s passion – and he knows them well. So he shared with us these tips that will be useful for the untrained eyes:
- Trust: Buy from the places that the wholesalers trust.
- But don’t trust too much: Don’t listen to people on the street who approach you and push you to see their goods, as they may offer you fake stones.
- Get a certificate: Go to the Asian Institute of Gemological Sciences, The Gem and Jewelry Institute (both located inside JTC ), or the Tokyo Gem Laboratory (10 minutes from JTC by foot), and pay around USD 15 for a certificate that will tell you if a precious stone is “natural” or “man-made.” Pay around USD 25 more and they will also tell you its origin.
- Bargain: It’s a common practice that small sellers in Thailand ask foreigners 50 percent more of the real price. This shouldn’t be the case with bigger companies but, just to be on the safe side, negotiate.
“If you tell the seller that you only want one stone, they may give you a price that is five times higher, so always ask for the wholesale price to get a good quote,” he advises.
How to buy from a shop that sources gemstones ethically?
Blood Diamond is not only a movie but also a reality. These “conflict diamonds” – a term coined by the United Nations in the 1990s – are mined in areas controlled by illegitimate forces and then used to fund military actions against the internationally recognized government, ultimately leading to great suffering by civilians.
According to Agarwal, although it’s not an easy task, more and more companies have been working systematically on getting ethically-sourced diamonds since 2010:
“Lack of transparency exists because of the middlemen. Gemstones go from the mines to the miners, and from the traders of rough material to those who manufacture them into useable stones. There is no such thing as a mines-to-jewelry chain and, due to this, it’s difficult to know where the gemstones exactly come from – only the miners know. However, with free trade, transparency and traceability are expected to increase,” he says.
Another way of finding legitimate sellers for the gemstones you’re looking for is by attending trade shows and finding companies that have been exhibiting in them for many years. Japan, India, and Hong Kong are home to respected fairs in the region and, of course, the Bangkok Gems & Jewelry Fair, which will take place again this year on its 62nd edition, on September 7–8, 2018.
Oh, and in case you’re considering coming to Bangkok to get that diamond ring, here’s what you have to do!
- Land in Suvarnabhumi airport
- Take the Airport Rail Link to Phaya Tai BTS station (the last station)
- Hop on the BTS Skytrain and get off in Siam (two stations)
- Change to the Silom line and get off at Surasak (five stations)
- Walk 10 minutes to the Jewelry Trade Center, located at 919/1 Silom Road
And don’t forget to check the requirements for importing gemstones to the country you’ll be taking them to.